Pray With Your Feet

Posted on Nov 15, 2015

By Chris Hedges

  Bishop George Packard, right, holds a banner with fellow protesters as they block an entrance to a gas pipeline construction operation in Montrose, N.Y. The banner reads, “We Say No to Spectra’s Algonquin Pipeline Expansion.” The bishop and eight others were later arrested. (Erik McGregor)

MONTROSE, N.Y.—It was 6:30 in the morning and George Packard, dressed in a dark suit, a purple clerical bib and a clerical collar, was at church. Or, rather, at what has become church for the retired Episcopal bishop, activist and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran.

Packard stood with 20 other protesters on a chilly morning Nov. 9 to block two roads leading to the staging area for Texas-based Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) pipeline project. After an hour, he and eight other protesters were arrested by New York state police.

Carrying out sustained acts of civil disobedience is the only option left to defy the corporate state, says Packard, who over the years has been arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest and other demonstrations. It will be a long, difficult and costly struggle. But there are moral and religious laws—laws that call on us to protect our neighbor, fight for justice and maintain systems of life—that must supersede the laws of the state. Fealty to these higher laws means we will make powerful enemies. It means we will endure discomfort, character assassination, state surveillance and repression. It means we will go to jail. But it is in the midst of this defiance that we will find purpose and, Packard argues, faith.

“This is the renewed presence of the church, people of spirit wandering around in the darkness trying to find each other,” Packard said to me before he was taken into custody by police during the Montrose protest. He stood holding one corner of a large banner reading, “We Say No to Spectra’s Algonquin Pipeline Expansion.” “When you find a cause that has spine, importance and potency you find the truth of the Scripture. You find it inside your gut. There is an ache in the culture.” Gesturing toward his fellow demonstrators, he added: “These are a few of the people who are speaking to it. This is what the church used to be. It used to be standing in conscience.”

The high-pressure, 42-inch-diameter pipeline, slated to run within 100 feet of critical structures of the Indian Point nuclear power plant and 400 feet of an elementary school, under major power lines, across a fault line, and below the Hudson River, would expose residents along the route to toxic emissions from compressor stations, along with the threat of ruptures, leakages and explosions. If an explosion caused a meltdown at Indian Point it would jeopardize the more than 21 million people living in and around New York City and the Hudson Valley. Pipelines are prone to leaks, breaks and explosions and are poorly monitored. On average in 2014, there was an accident involving a gas transmission pipeline every three days.

The gas in the AIM pipeline, bound for foreign export, will not be available to local communities along the route or provide many jobs to local residents (workers in pickup trucks blocked by the protesters at Montrose often had Texas or Oklahoma license plates). Residents, as is common along pipeline routes, have found themselves powerless to prevent the state from seizing their property under eminent domain and turning it over to the industry.

The protesters were from a local organization called Resist AIM. They had spent more than two years attending hearings and meetings with elected representatives and county and state officials, as well as reaching out to regulatory agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). But these officials and agencies, cowed or controlled by corporate power, ignored their pleas. The oil and gas industry controls FERC, the federal agency in charge of issuing pipeline permits, by placing members from the industry on the board. FERC has denied only one pipeline request in the last decade. The agency is a corporate front posing as a regulatory agency; most of its budget comes from permitting fees paid by the oil and gas industry. It rubber-stamps requests so the fossil fuel industry can transport fracked gas or shale oil in a series of pipelines from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and other areas in the Marcellus Shale region to export terminals on the East Coast. The New York AIM pipeline, which replaces a smaller pipeline, is part of this vast infrastructure project.

“Front-line communities start out by being obedient and attempting to influence legislation and regulation,” said activist Susan Rubin, who is part of Resist AIM. “They put a lot of time and energy into their two-minute talk with FERC thinking that will make a difference. We wasted about a year and a half going to these regulatory meetings and writing letters. We did not understand that FERC is a rogue agency run by gas and oil insiders.”

“It is a hard conversation to have with people, even explaining how broken FERC is, that being nice to our congresswoman is not going to fix it,” she said. “We have to turn up the heat. We have to get loud. But we live in a culture of obedience. When I was arrested in front of the White House in 2011 it caused a shift in me. I realized signing a petition would not work. I realized I needed to be in this for the long run. There would be no short victories. I do little happy dances for a few hours and then I get back to work because I have kids. This is what I have to do.”

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